Why do so many organisations fail to make Lean work successfully? Lets look at something we call the Lean Crunch Phenomena.
Over the years, many companies have tried ‘Lean’, interestingly only a relatively small number consider that they have succeeded in making their organisation truly ‘Lean’.
Those that fail, in most cases, is not for want or effort. Indeed most organisations that try to become Lean invest time, effort and quite often significant sums of money in hiring ‘Lean’ Consultants. Yet after a period of time their enthusiasm for the process starts to diminish and they disengage from the process.
Normally the comments at that time are something like, ‘It has some benefits, but it was not for us’ or ‘it just consumed too much time and we do not have the resources’ or even ‘The workforce just did not take to it’.
This just goes to prove, being ‘Lean’ is not easy. So why do organisations struggle with the introduction of Lean concepts and processes?
Let’s looks a little deeper at why this is and what the typical patterns of failure are.
Over the years as a Lean Consultant, I have listened to many tales and stories of failed ‘Lean’ programs and interestingly many of those that have failed to make Lean work effectively, normally drop the initiative after 1 or 2 years. Nearly all follow a pattern that leads to a decision point. One we will call the Lean Crunch Point.
Most will have put a great deal of effort into making Lean work for them, but typically have failed to get the process of controlling and linking the various elements of Lean correct. This inevitably means that at some point people begin to question if Lean is right for the business.
The above chart shows that as the levels of ‘low hanging fruit’ diminish over time, the results become less. At this point people’s enthusiasm and appetite for Lean will change at all levels of the organisation. The excitement of the initial days of the program will diminish and the pressures of day to day business start to take priority. Kaizen activities will, unless planned well, start to become more difficult and lose focus. People will start to shy away from tackling the more difficult areas because of the lack of clear direction.
When this happens, sooner or later the question will be asked at senior level, is Lean working?
In effect we are now at the ‘Lean Crunch Point’
At the Lean Crunch Point, normally one of 3 directions is chosen.
Not for us
Many companies have a history of ‘flavour of the month’. Sometimes this is triggered by the arrival of a new CEO or senior member with a point to prove or a desire to put his or her mark on the company. Sometimes it is simply the review of what Lean has actually delivered to the bottom line or it could be simply the program has run out of steam and lost focus. In any case this path normally leads to Lean thinking being dropped and badged as ‘not right for us’ or ‘it didn’t work because it only really works in automotive’
Sometimes Businesses see a good level of benefits, but fail to fully harness the power that using Lean strategically can bring. This normally means that on a day to day level some Lean tools will remain in the organisation, but Lean is not driven from the top in a strategic manner. Normally in this situation, Lean is left to the ‘CI department’ or to the shop floor supervisor. So what happens is that Lean is used more as a ‘mole hitting’ tool when there is a problem. Lean tends in this case, to be used when people are happy that a quick kaizen will fix the issue rather than as a planned intervention as part of a strategic value stream improvement.
Let’s do this
Quite often this path is taken after a lot of soul searching and discussion as to why Lean has not fully delivered. Usually this path will be entered with a new level of commitment from the senior management but little else. The key here is to understand that any Lean initiative must be linked strategically to the top level goals of the business and to embed it’s thinking into the culture of the organisation.
So how do we do this?
In order for an organisation to be successful, Leadership must take steps to close the gap between today’s performance and an organisation’s vision and take a strategic approach to the improvement activities.
Lean is not simply a set of tools that can be wheeled out as required; it is a holistic approach to changing the way an organisation operates day to day. In effect, the company culture.
Leadership has to be just that; Leadership. They must believe, teach and live the process with everyone else. Lean is not something that can be left to a department or an individual. It starts with setting a clear vision for the direction of the organisation. This has to come from the top. Processes must be put in place top to bottom to ensure that the message is understood. If this is not done you are simply loading the organisation for failure.
Leaders need to be continuously looking for the signs of the onset of the Lean Crunch Phenomena and recognise when the Lean Crunch Point is coming. The message then needs to be clear and the direction of the organisation reinforced. Additional effort should be put into the process so that people are left in no doubt that Lean is the way forward and the senior team believe in the process 100%
The Lean Crunch Phenomena is something that nearly all organisations that decide to embark on a Lean Journey will experience. The successful ones are those that have the ability to recognise when the process it reaching the Lean Crunch Point and take action.